Opium alkaloids in poppy seeds: assessment updated
EFSA has updated its risk assessment of opium alkaloids in poppy seeds, confirming many of its previous findings, including the amount of these substances that can be consumed safely. The latest opinion also broadens the evidence that should be considered when calculating the possible risk to consumers.
EFSA’s previous assessment, published in 2011, set a safe level – or acute reference dose (ARfD) – of 10 μg per kilogram (kg) of body weight based on the morphine content of poppy seeds.
The European Commission asked EFSA to update the opinion taking into account new data on the alkaloid content of poppy seeds submitted to EFSA since 2011.
The new opinion confirms the safe level of 10 μg/kg of body weight but this time as a ”group ARfD” that, in addition to morphine, takes codeine content into account when calculating dietary exposure.
This is because the new data show that in some poppy seed samples on the European market, the concentration of codeine can be higher than that of morphine.
The safe level may be exceeded by consumers of large amounts of seeds or of foods containing unprocessed poppy seeds. Due to the low amount of occurrence data on food products containing poppy seeds, EFSA’s Panel on Contaminants in the Food Chain has highlighted uncertainties in exposure estimates.
The panel also notes that food processing steps, such as washing, heat treatment and grinding, may reduce the alkaloid content in poppy seeds by between 25 and 100%.
The assessment also considered data on other alkaloids present in poppy seeds – thebaine, oripavine, noscapine and papaverine. No full risk assessment could be carried out for these substances, but EFSA’s Panel on Contaminants in the Food Chain indicated that dietary exposure to thebaine might pose a health risk. More data, particularly on the toxicity of thebaine, are needed to clarify this.
What is an acute reference dose?
An acute reference dose (ARfD) is the estimate of the amount of a substance in food – normally expressed on a body-weight basis (mg/kg or μg/kg of body weight) – that can be ingested in a period of 24 hours or less without appreciable health risk to the consumer.
In brief: opium alkaloids in poppies
- Poppy seeds are obtained from the opium poppy (Papaver somniferum). The latex (milky sap) of the opium poppy contains up to 80 alkaloids, including morphine and codeine, which have been used for the treatment of severe pain for generations but are also subject to misuse.
- The seeds are used as food and to produce edible oil.
- In some Central Eastern European countries poppy seeds are traditionally used in bread, fine bakery products and desserts.
- Poppy seeds normally do not contain opium alkaloids, but can become contaminated with opium alkaloids as a result of pest damage and during harvest.
- There are few reports of adverse effects arising from consumption of poppy seeds in food; however it cannot be assumed that such reactions do not occur from time to time. Morphine-like effects have been observed in humans following consumption of a single portion of a meal containing opium alkaloid-contaminated poppy seeds.
- Pregnant women, infants, people above 75 years of age and those suffering from health conditions with impaired respiratory function are subgroups that are more sensitive to adverse effects of morphine.